Week 4 of our free mindfulness course is about making meaning and the mind (www.expatbackup.com)Welcome to Week 4 of our 8-week journey into mindfulness. This is the fourth of eight posts that follow the mindfulness course from Professor Mark Williams and Dr. Danny Penman’s book, “Mindfulness: An Eight-Week Plan for Finding Peace in a Frantic World.” We’ve been going strong for the last three weeks together, so if you’re just joining us now, start with the first week here. To sign up to receive all 8 weeks of the course by email, click here.

This week, we move deeper in our understanding of how the mind works and start a conscious practice of mindfulness techniques that shift our focus and awareness towards accepting and being in the present moment. Over the last three weeks, we’ve built a solid sense for what our baseline feels like, in our body and our mind. We’ve practiced techniques that shift our focus from the past or the future, or from any number of infinite distractions, into the now.

It’s time to begin to unravel what it is that our mind is actually doing when we experience physical stimuli, emotional responses and mental loops. Becoming aware of this process is immensely freeing, but will take some practice.

What is Meaning Making?

Our mind is constantly caught up in the process of making meaning from the inputs it receives. It catalogs and structures information and uses it to orient us within our environment, providing a sense of identity within our socio-cultural context and within stories that ascribe value – or a lack thereof – to the inputs themselves. The mind associates and connects inputs in a way that generates an internal ecosystem. This helps us orient so that we conceptually understand who we are and what we’re doing here – but it’s not as solid a system as we might think.

If we grew up in a conservative or industrialized culture, meaning was likely handed down to us by some kind of authority. Religion, school, parents – there was likely no shortage of people eager to tell us “how things are,” often with good intentions and a desire to help us “succeed in the world.” But cultural stories about group identity are arbitrary and vary immensely around the world, and meaning emerges dynamically within them, not as something external and unchanging. As the authors write, “We don’t see the world as it is, but as we are.”

Some cultures have a “dominator” story that encourages separateness, extractivism and often violent systems of ranking and hierarchy. In these cultures, who you are is “handed down” to you and likely has little room for interpretation — although you may have tried. This is true for most of us who grew up in the West, by the way. By contrast, other cultures tell a more “partnership” based story about who we are as a community and tend to have more collaborative and horizontal decision-making structures that encourage individuals to create their own meaning. My point here is to show that meaning making is strongly cultural and often serves a larger cultural purpose.

However, in times like we’re in now, when systems are in flux and the rate of change is quickly increasing, external and inherited meaning making systems can break down and leave us feeling highly disoriented and despondent. Now, we need to learn to make meaning on our own, in a way that empowers and enlivens us and creates real connection to our community and the world around us. We’re going to start by seeing how our minds begin to make meaning out of the data received from the senses.

Breaking down the Meaning Making Process

Does our meaning making process serve us by giving us a sense of belonging, by creating a structure for us in which we can find value and purpose? Maybe, maybe not – but this week, we’re going to find out. This demands of us an unflinching bravery and commitment to seeing without judgment.

Let’s look a little closer into what happens when we make meaning. First, there is a situation. Say you don’t know whether you will be extended at your job in your host country when your current contract runs out. That, in and of itself, is value neutral – neither “good” nor “bad.”

Then, there is the interpretation our mind gives to the situation – the meaning we make out of it. Maybe we say “I haven’t succeeded enough in meeting all my deliverables on time, even though there were so many factors outside my control,” or “I think my boss has someone else she wants to hire in my place,” and so forth. Notice, at this point, how many possible interpretations of meaning there are: it is literally infinite.

Third, there are the reactions we have in our body: emotions and behavior originating from the meaning we’ve ascribed to the situation. Maybe we feel stressed and anxious about the uncertainty, or depressed at not being more highly valued. These emotions create physical sensations in the body like endocrine changes, circulatory and respiratory system response, and also impulses to act in a certain way. We might drink more than is good for us, isolate in our apartment, overeat or not sleep as well.

We’re probably already aware of the situation itself and our responses to it, but the meaning making process is likely less clear. It happens so quickly that it’s almost automatic – but here’s where our power lies. Because we’re not machines with set trajectories, with mindfulness practice the meaning making process becomes something that we can interrupt and guide in a way that best serves us. I find this incredibly exciting.

As we change our mental models of situations around us, the space for alternative interpretations opens up. Maybe we decide to choose stories about ourselves and our place in the world that we find enjoyable and empowering. Why not? We can begin to slow down and unpack our emotional responses to old meaning-making patterns that cause stress and anguish, and even replace them if we want to.

Breaking the Pattern of Self-Criticism

You know how trying to think your way out of an emotional problem often just makes things worse?

Take the authors’ example of self-criticism. We feel tired, stressed and vulnerable and instead of the empathic voice of self-compassion, we revert to inherited patterns of self-criticism in an attempt to motivate ourselves into taking action to “fix” things. At that moment, we may say things to ourselves like, “I have to work this weekend,” or “I have to stay late to get this work done – I have no choice.” Notice how the meaning making process at the heart of this moment masquerades as truth, when it’s actually based on a series of stories and interpretations we’ve decided are true. There’s a big difference.

If we allow it, further negative self-talk pushes us further into stress and vulnerability, and often devolves into self-bullying and meanness based on “evidence” our mind digs up to “help.” As a consequence, self-esteem plummets and we feel further isolated, inadequate and alone. Attempting to confront a mind’s meaning making process with logic and “positive thinking” does not actually halt the biofeedback cycle of meaning making and the negative effect this self-criticism is having on your body, emotions and behavioral impulses. But mindfulness does.

By slowing down our meaning making long enough to see the thoughts, beliefs and assumptions it’s based on, we give ourselves a choice about what we want to keep and what we want to release. For fleeting moments in the last few weeks, we may have realized that we are not our minds. The stories they tell us are not necessarily “true,” and certainly not as real as they appear to be. Often, they are just the symptoms of stress, overwork and exhaustion – useful indicators of how to improve self-care – and we can simply chose not to attribute any more meaning to them and move on.

Mindfulness Practice Week 4: Meaning Making and the Mind

This week of our journey gives us an opportunity to begin to sense when our mind’s meaning making process veers towards negativity and self-attack. Our practice creates space for us to see that we have a choice about how we react to signals from our mind and body, and that the meaning we create is truly in our hands.

Read chapter eight in “Mindfulness: Finding Peace in a Frantic World,” for more about this. This Expat Backup series is meant to complement and not replace the program in the book.

That said, here is our list of practices for the week:

Habit-releaser: See a film that you’d normally not watch. Pick it at random and try to notice where interrupting thought patterns seek to diminish your enjoyment of the moment.

Longer meditation: Again this week, we have two 8-minute meditations that are to be done together, back-to-back, for a total of 16 minutes, twice a day. I find it easiest to do one in the morning or by the latest, mid-day, and another in the early evening before I get too tired.

  • The first is the same “Breath and Body” meditation we did last week. Right-click to download it here.
  • The second is the “Sounds and Thoughts” meditation that you can download here (right-click on the link to download). This meditation is my favorite so far, as the metaphor of how our constantly changing soundscape mirrors the landscape of our thoughts helped me to get a sense for meaning making in-progress.

3-minute meditation: This is the same “3-Minute Breathing Space” meditation that we began last week. Download it here. You can do this one wherever you want, whenever you feel the need, and the authors recommend practicing it at least twice a day. I found myself able to remember the “hourglass shape” of the practice and calling on it as a resource during other times as well. Particularly when I’m experiencing something unpleasant, this practice keeps me gently in the moment and aware of and willing to release any negative thinking patterns that might amplify the situation.

If it’s helpful, the full list of guided audio meditations from “Mindfulness: An Eight-Week Plan for Finding Peace in a Frantic World” can be found here.

Persist in your practice! As the authors point out, “The thought stream is so powerful that it can pick us up and whisk us away before we’re even aware of it.” At such times (and for me they happen often) the best recourse is to practice self-compassion, withhold judgment and gently return to the practice, over and over (and over) again. The reward for your diligence and commitment is more space, peace and happiness in your life. Your health and happiness are worth the effort.

It is truly a privilege to be on this journey with you. Remember, you’re not alone in this. There are people joining you in this practice all over the world.

I invite you to email me (elie@expatbackup.com) to check in and share your experiences with the mindfulness journey – I’d love to hear from you.

And if you’d like to receive Expat Backup emails directly to your Inbox, you can subscribe here. Finally, please consider sharing this with someone you think might benefit!

I’ll see you next week.

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